Selyna Peiris is Director at Selyn, the only fair trade guaranteed handloom company in Sri Lanka. She is an Attorney-at-law and has extensive experience in the development sector in areas such as gender, livelihoods, and reconciliation. In this interview with Women Talk, Selyna talks about how Selyn developed into a social enterprise that empowers over thousand women, Selyn’s first sub-brand Sthri that emerged from an ethical fashion collaboration, and the potential of social enterprise in post war Sri Lanka.
You grew up while Selyn was also growing into an organisation, with your mother Sandra Wanduragala initiating the business with 15 women in the village of Wanduragala in Kurunegala. What was it like to have grown up in this set up?
There are certain things that I remember very vividly. My mom started in the garage of my home. We have a few ladies from that group who are still with us today. I remember running around the tables and begging them to sew the clothes of my dolls. Then the company got bigger and we shifted to the back of the house where my mother’s law office was and then to another building.
The hard work that I saw my mother put into the business is something that has left an impression on me my whole life. I also saw how my uncle, who joined the business with my mother, worked. They brought the reels of clothes on bikes. When my mother got her first export orders, we did nights with her, doing whatever we can to help her. So, I saw all the hard work that she put in.
What got your mother interested in setting Selyn up in the first place?
She is a lawyer by profession. Although she came from a very traditional family in Kurunegala, they were not exactly cash-rich. When she was practicing as a lawyer, my dad was also working in various businesses and she realized that she can also start an enterprise. The turning point for her came when she got selected by the Dutch government to go for an entrepreneurship program. That really opened her eyes to the possibility of taking something traditional and making it something that is modern but also helps women. That is where her inspiration to start came.
Your formal education includes training in law, diplomacy, and the development sector. Could you elaborate on how your educational and work experience led you in the direction of social enterprise?
I always wanted to become a lawyer. I got my LL.B training and LL.M. I focused on company, corporate, and commercial laws, world economic law, and investment law. But I continued to have a touch with how law and development are functioning together.
When I was doing my LL.M, I got an opportunity to go to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. While doing my training there, I worked for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, specifically focusing on women, livelihoods, and Sri Lanka.
I waited four months after the war ended. I thought that there is no point of me being away. I got a job as a consultant from UNIDO Vienna to work in the Eastern Province in Sri Lanka, doing evaluations for women livelihood projects. That opened my eyes to the potential as well as huge gaps in women’s work in the East. It was just after the war had ended in 2009. Going from household to household, talking to people, it was shocking for me. I think that is where my interest started.
With that I did various work with the development sector. In 2015, Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga invited me to be part of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. I worked with the women for reconciliation, livelihoods, and education programs. All that experience made me aware of the various challenges that each sector faces and what has to be done. It is a partnership. The government needs to regulate and incentivize. The development sector can mobilize and bring in a lot of soft skills. The private sector also has to step in.
What drew you to set up Selyn as a social enterprise?
Selyn was always set up the way it is. I don’t think my mother or my uncle realised that it was a social enterprise. Selyn was approached to take the fair trade certification by the World Fair Trade Organisation when they saw the work that we were doing.
We saw ourselves as a handloom company. But when I came back and worked in the development sector, I got into the social enterprise discourse myself. I realised that there was one sitting at home and the potential it had. I worked for nearly eight years after I finished my studies, in various fields. With that I had realised the strength of social enterprise; how it can complement and fill the gaps that the development sector and the government had in sustaining livelihoods for women. That is what really drew me to this.
What is the role that handloom played as the key product of this social enterprise?
Handloom turned out to be something that was directly impacting women. Through that skill and industry, you could employ a lot of women. Kurunegala was also an area where we did have a flourishing handloom industry in the 1950s. There were a lot of factories and workshops that were closing down. Looking at the resources and skills in the area and also at the fact that women could be gainfully employed, handloom was a good choice.
There are about 1000 women involved in Selyn’s social enterprise. What is the significance of this initiative as an empowering sisterhood where women have been strengthened by working with this organisation?
We have three different ways of working with the people we work with who are mostly women. Ninety-nine percent of our organisation consists of women. The three different approaches are we have the direct employees; those are the people who work in our three handloom factories, dye plant, and toy factory. They are employed as part of our work force.
Then we have an independent workshop model where clusters of people work together. There are groups of five to 35-40 people who are working together. These are mostly weaving units.
The other model that we work with is the homeworker model. This is where single women work in their homes to produce the work that is done. Those are not weavers. That is the model that is growing because a lot of women due to various reasons cannot come to work. For instance, school time in Sri Lanka is not conducive for a woman to come to work. There is no shift from 7am-1pm. We start our operations at 8am. So, they can drop their child to school and come to work. They work until 12noon and go to pick their child. There are others who pick up the material that needs to be sewn and works from home. That is the way all these people are working within our network.
Something that started with 15 women, how did it develop towards 1000 and this whole big network?
I think it was word of mouth. My mother is a renowned lawyer in Kurunegala. She still has her own practice. When women saw that this was something that was safe for them to come, and this was also in the traditional sector, the word spread. That is the way the system works. We do have recruitment drives in the villages, especially with women who are at risk of migration due to unskilled labour. We specifically target that group.
But other than that, this word of mouth. Sometimes the publicity we do in terms of publications in Sinhala and Tamil newspapers and television also bring people to us.
But what is great about the homeworker model is even you can work with us. We are not targeting only the rural woman per say. Recently, I met a girl at a function and she came up to me and said I want to thank you and your mother because I funded my university by sewing part-time in Selyn. So, it is not always rural women. I am trying to look into how we can engage such university students and girls who have a few hours in their hands to work with us. These are all finally financial empowerment for them.
I interviewed Sumika Perera, for Women Talk, who is very active in the grassroots level in Kurunegala. In the interview, she discusses how one of the highest rates for women migrants are recorded from Kurunegala as well as the high number of military families, due to unskilled labour. How significant is it for social enterprise initiatives, like Selyn, to take shape in Kurunegala, as a district?
Kurunegala is a completely ignored province in the country in terms of development. Like Sumika said, not only do we have one of the highest amounts of migrant workers and the highest military widows, we also have an interesting statistic about high rates for morning-after pills and half hour hotel rooms. Kurunegala is also a tuition hub. There are all these very prominent social issues that are completely ignored, budding in Kurunegala. Those are the new conflict drivers.
As an organisation, we guarantee constant work. That is a key defining factor in a fair trade company. Just employment of a woman does not mean that they are empowered. There is a big difference. Number one is you have to give them a constant flow of work. Then there is a need for fair wages for that constant work. Then when it comes to what they make, we have a no reject policy. If something is rejected, we bear the cost of those things. Because it is fabric, we can always make something out of it.
We look at various other challenges that a woman has in order to come to work and to sustain a livelihood. In terms of our village units, we have given bicycles to them. I would see in Kumbukgate, women would come to work, go home for lunch, make sure it is all set, and then come back to work in their bikes. So, the flexi time, transport, travel allowances, and actually going into the village to set up things, help women to come and work.
There are also other factors like child care and daycare that we are really pushing for. We have these in one of our units. We have planned to expand these services to three of our other units. Not just for small children, but also for young adults. There are 11-13-year-old girls who come home after school and have to wait alone until their mothers return from work. That alone is enough for a mother to stay at home. So, we provide child care.
We also provide legal advice, financial management, and voluntary savings schemes. We are running a voluntary savings scheme with the SANASA Development Bank (SDB). Chairperson of SDB Samadanie Kiriwandeniya and my mom have a very good relationship; both very strong women.
We also have programs about sexual health, contraception, and self-defense all moulded into one. Because these problem exists. We are also trying to get into addressing domestic violence. These are all real issues that the women are facing. As a company, we really want to focus on empowering a woman in terms of her finances and her ability to deal with life.
Sri Lanka is also currently undergoing a post war and transitional justice phase, as a country. How does an initiative like social enterprise position within that context?
I think there is a huge potential. My assessment is that there is something in the social contract that is failing us. There is something going wrong. This is not me saying this, you can see from statistics and reports. I feel that this entire social enterprise model has a potential to fix or be a strong component of that failing social contract to make it a success. If we have enterprise at the ground level, looking at social and environmental issues, it is in everyone’s self interest.
Something that we underestimate as humans is that we think we are all self-less; we are not. There has to be something you get if you want something to sustain. But why fight it, is my point, if that is what is going to work.
I feel small social enterprises right at grassroots level, those little initiatives, that address a social and environmental need in the society can play a huge role, especially in the North and East areas. We have to get out of this grant mentality. Both from the development sector and the government comes this grant mentality.
If I can give an example, we are always talking about child care and day care. Why can’t the grandmothers in one village get together and run a small daycare for their daughters’ children so that their daughters can go to work? The intervention can come from the development sector to make this daycare or preschool into a good standard. But they can run as their own social enterprise. Those kinds of initiatives can really work towards helping women to access work and stay in work.
What does it mean to be an ethical and fair trade certified fashion brand, in the local and global context?
There is a big difference between employing someone and empowering someone. There is also a big difference of being in the craft industry and being a fair-trade certified craft company. The difference is that, not only do we give work, we ensure that this work is done in compliance with ten fair-trade principles.
The working condition, the wage, and the constant work matter. You can’t just give sample orders and then leave them. There has to be a circle of work for them. There is no child labour. We don’t harm the environment. If you take our dyeing process of the yarn, we have invested in a waste-water plant treatment to ensure that the dyes that are used in our production are treated and released. It costs 70,000 rupees a day.
We have to work in compliance with every one of those principles. We are independently audited every two years for compliance. It is not an easy process. It is a commitment and it is very good because finally it also checks for us. Because on no point can we compromise the people and the planet while we maximize our profit. It has to go hand in hand.
Let’s talk about Selyn’s first sub-brand Sthri, which was launched as an ethical fashion collaboration of several designers and artists. How did this come to be?
I am not someone who likes to live in the present. I like to very much see the future. Having given my fulltime commitment to Selyn, I was struck by how much potential there is because we are a mainstream brand. People know us as a good-quality, price-effective handloom company. So, why not take that mainstream brand presence and turn that into a collective or platform for social change?
It is something quite different. I myself come from an activist background. I thought how can I take a step further from not just looking at internally working with our women but how can we make this a collective to work with other ethical fashion designers? How can we have a collective or a platform where other women can come on board and have what we call empowered fashion collections? That is how Sthri was born. The idea grew with every partner we spoke to. We have collaborated with other social brands like Emerge Global and Salvage. We worked with Vision One and Shanuki De Alwis. Tuschimo by Sthri, a collection by Arosha Rosenberger, is very high fashion. It is about finding those right collaborations and right partnerships but what is important is that we have to understand and accept that we have to innovate. Every person we spoke to grew the idea because they came onboard it.
Sthri is about the woman. It is about how we as women can make our fashion and lifestyle choices to empower another woman. Empowered fashion for women by women.
So, where is Sthri heading and what are the plans for its future?
I want it to be big. It can be a completely separate store. It can cross Sri Lanka’s borders. It can be a platform to advocate for women’s issues. It can be a platform to house young politicians. It is a self-sustainable platform because we are selling a product and that product sustains our platform. I think it is a great platform within which young empowered women and whoever can come onboard and have their say. If not wearing the Sthri clothes, by just making a statement saying that this is something I support. One key defining factor is that it is a self-sustained movement. And I definitely want it to be a movement. It is sustained by fashion and lifestyle but it is going to mean so much more.
As a business woman, how does that position you within today’s context of the Sri Lankan society?
I don’t know whether I see myself as a business woman, but I suppose I am. It is interesting. Because I am a lawyer, I have people telling me what are you doing with your life? Why don’t you practice with your mother at least part-time? They don’t see this kind of work as good enough for me, which is quite shocking. I think that is the attitude most of our traditional-thinking people have towards business and entrepreneurship in the country. I can have a stronger place in maybe the Colombo circle but where I come from in Kurunegala I am really seen as having come back to do my mother’s business. This is not seen as something prestigious. I think that is a big cultural shift that has to happen.
Also, many people do not understand this idea of a social enterprise. So, I don’t know whether people really understand what I do. I would call myself a social ‘intrapreneur’, which means that I am constantly innovating something that my mother founded. I think we have to continue to be entrepreneurs. It is not just about starting up. It is about sustaining what we also have. Sometimes it is harder to transform an existing business than start up on your own. But I think there is a lot of room in Sri Lanka for opening the doors for women who are in business and women who are in social business.
Any future projects to look out for?
We are doing some very interesting projects with our toys and moral education. Again, with my experience, working for ONUR, I saw how important it is for children to have moral education at preschool level. That is something that had been completely ignored by Sri Lanka. We don’t think a child needs to learn between the age of 1-3, and that is when they need their basic learning to grow into the future. I am trying to use some of the toys we are making to give a spin into using those toys for early childhood education. That is something I am working on currently.
And then, obviously, expanding Sthri and how we can work with other ethical fashion designers and other social brands. We are very keen to see how we can house them at Selyn.
Date of Interview: 15 November 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage